For the Islanders’ home opener of the 2007-08 season, Pierre Turgeon was suggested as a popular choice to drop the ceremonial faceoff. The season would be the 15th anniversary of the 1992-93 Islanders’ uplifting upset of the two-time defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. It would be 15 years since Pierre’s remarkable 58-goal, 132-point season. He had also just retired in the summer of 2007.
Turgeon was passed over in favor of legendary left wing Christie Brinkley, who walked to center ice to applause from about 50 of the 16,000-plus fans in attendance. Ms. Brinkley’s appearance did get the team some coverage for a day on “Access: Hollywood” which, of course, led to tremendous awareness of the Islanders brand and big leaps in tickets and merchandise sales. (I’m just kidding about the ex-supermodel’s impact, but that’s what marketing experts get paid to convince you to believe).
Bringing Sneaky Pete back for an elegant encore would have been the right thing to do because…simply put, it would have been the right thing to do. Just as real old-time Yankees fans may not understand my generation’s infatuation with Don Mattingly, some folks around Islanders Country fail to grasp what Turgeon, Thomas, Flatley, Kasparaitis and the 1992-93 Islanders represent to a large section of the fanbase.
The ’92-93 Islanders are not just the last version to win two playoff series in the same year, they are last to win one. But even if the franchise had been more successful since, that team would still linger in the hearts of anyone who cares about this team.
Kasparaitis driving Mario Lemieux completely bonkers. Rich Pilon scaring opponents out of the Islanders’ end. Tommy Fitzgerald scoring two shorthanded goals within the same Penguins’ power play. Ray Ferraro scoring seemingly every shift in the first round against Washington. Turgeon – not a fast skater, not a hard shooter, not a big hitter – just an exceptional hockey player.
Glenn Healy winning games 7-5 and 6-5 because he came up big in the third period. (Claire Arbour always tells me the Islanders were never the same after Don Maloney “let that Glenn Healy go”). The Kid Line. For one season, Al Arbour getting the most out of Vladimir Malakhov, Jeff Norton, Uwe Krupp and Tom Kurvers. Mick Vukota not always winning his fights, but keeping the peace and lifting the other heavyweights and slamming them to the ice for the takedown. Foot soldiers Marty McInnis (he could skate), Claude Loiselle (guts and smarts) and “Flats” (60 points and no one better along the boards)
And then the exasperating David Volek – a scoring wing who scored all of 8 goals in the regular season – scoring the last playoff-winning goal in franchise history.
I certainly don’t mean to focus on Christie Brinkley, a Long Islander of dignity, a humanitarian and great mom who became an Islanders fan because her son asked her if they could go to a game. But the home opener is supposed to be a celebration for the fans, a time when Al Arbour and Denis Potvin walk to center ice to a thunderous, roof-raising response.
I also hate making too big a deal of the Alumni thing. Understand this: sports franchises that win consistently rarely hear complaints about whether they honor their tradition enough. And when you haven’t won a playoff round in 16 years, cynics call it “living in the past.” Funny, I never hear that said about the Yankees or the Canadiens.
Marketing executives appear so much smarter when their teams win. Best proof: when the Devils won their three Stanley Cups, they didn’t do a lot of marketing in New Jersey.
Fans would give up every bobblehead night and trip down dynasty lane to see Tavares and Okposo win a few playoff rounds soon. Bobby Nystrom himself would trade his 23 banner in exchange for watching this generation of Islanders become a consistent contender.
Or how’s this for a novelty: honoring the past and winning in the present. Too much to ask? Not really. The greatest emotion from the Coliseum stands for a number retirement ceremony was for Bryan Trottier’s day on Oct. 20, 2001. The fans love Trots, but they felt especially proud that the current team was 6-0-0-1.
During the Core of the Four weekend in March of 2008, the Islanders announced grand plans to annually acknowledge their storied past. (Read the “TRADITION REIGNS” press release, still posted on the official team website). You may have missed it during last season’s last-place Campaign For Tavares, but despite the March 08 press release, the Islanders didn’t host a major alumni event last season. There was one weekend when a few ex-Isles like Brad Dalgarno and Gerry Hart were interviewed on the scoreboard. To say the least, it wasn’t anything special.
A cross-section of fans – including regular readers of this blog – will reject all this as “nostalgia” and say they are done with nights to remember. But really now: is 10 minutes before one game a year too much when you’re talking about a franchise with this rich a history and deep connection to its community?
I’ll refrain for now from writing a column called “Whatever Happened to the NYI Hall of Fame After the Islanders Inducted Bob Bourne“? Although Bourne was the first inductee in 2006 and there hasn’t been another one since, let’s wait until this season’s promotional schedule comes out. Maybe one is finally in the planning stages.
Embracing tradition and building a winner do not have to be mutually exclusive. Taking a brief moment to salute players like Turgeon – and Westfall and Jonsson and Goring and Tonelli and Palffy and LaFontaine – would simply be the right thing to do. And let’s remember, the Islanders have a history before 1980 and after 1983.